Writing, directing, and acting in a film is no small feat — just ask Angelina Jolie. Justin Chon pulls it off with Blue Bayou, in which he stars as Antonio, a Korean adoptee raised in a small Louisiana town who faces the threat of deportation. For those who didn’t catch our Filmmaker Spotlight on the multi-hyphenate, Chon started out in front of the camera, and his long list of on-camera credits includes playing Eric in the Twilight film series and starring opposite Miles Teller and Skylar Astin in 21 & Over. Gook, Chon’s sophomore feature that he wrote and directed, made a name for him as a filmmaker after it won the NEXT Audience Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
He also starred in that film, and his work in front of the camera in Blue Bayou is no less impressive. In it, Chon believably transforms into a character who’s been dealt a number of hard knocks in his life and is just trying to get by with his family intact. The actor deftly plays Antonio — a tattoo artist who has a record — with intelligence and resilience. The character’s mannerisms match his back story, and he is sometimes curt while maintaining a tough exterior. But Chon layers in the emotional connection Antonio has with his wife and stepdaughter, who are his world. He draws from deep wells of emotion within the character when he’s dealing with some of the film’s more traumatic elements, and Chon delivers strong work overall.
But in a review of the film’s performances, we need to allow enough space to cover Alicia Vikander, who plays Antonio’s wife Kathy. Her work reminds us why the thespian holds the title of Oscar-winner — she was 2016’s Best Supporting Actress for The Danish Girl, in case you forgot. At the top of the film, Vikander effortlessly portrays a small-town, southern woman who loves her husband and daughter. But as the story unfolds, her family is threatened by financial troubles, the police, and the threat of Antonio’s deportation. And it’s then that you see the full depth of the character she’s built. Vikander’s Kathy possesses a quiet strength, which begins to reveal itself when the weight of her family’s circumstances starts piling up. She keeps fighting against the odds throughout the film as a protective mother and wife.
Vikander’s on-camera work is defined by its stillness, which makes the bulk of her emotion emit through her eyes and lips. Such skill is always a treat to watch and is made even more impactful when Kathy’s self-contained exterior does crack, whether she’s unleashing on an immoral cop or breaking down during a fight with Antonio. The latter is a display of intense vulnerability, the likes of which are rarely seen on a medium that fosters stars who often release a perfectly contained tear or two down their faces when expressing sadness. Not so with Vikander. During said confrontation, Kathy cries hard in the sort of way where liquid is not only coming from her eyes but also her nose and mouth a little, too. It’s the “ugly” cry we can all relate to, although Vikander’s work is nothing short of beautiful.
Other notable performances in Blue Bayou include Linh Dan Pham as Parker, an unlikely friend of Antonio’s who reminds him of his mother. Mark O’Brien’s turn as Kathy’s ex Ace is connected and grounded while also offering some well-played redemption for his character. The esteemed Vondie Curtis-Hall is excellent as Antonio’s lawyer, providing lots of impact with little screen time. And then there’s newcomer Syndey Kowalske. As Antonio’s young stepdaughter Jessie, the pint-sized actor handles heavy material with the poise of someone well beyond her years. She ends the film with Chon in a heartbreaking scene that will either make you cry or schedule a doctor’s appointment to get your tear ducts checked. Between them and Vikander and a talented supporting cast, the performances found in Blue Bayou make it one to watch.